After each Islamist terrorist attack in the West, the public is divided into two camps: one angry and one indifferent. The problem with defeating Islamist terrorism seems to be that either it is attacked by conservatives who call Islam an evil cult or it is forgiven entirely by liberal apologists. What, then, is the answer?
One of the main failures in Western analyses of the origins of terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa is that the West attributes them to a lack of democracy and a lack of respect for human rights. This is, indeed, part of the cause, but the root of the problem is a lack of development and modernity. U.S. President Donald Trump did not exaggerate when he said that the Obama administration's foreign policy was disastrous. It was catastrophic mainly for two reasons. One was the knee-jerk support for the "Arab Spring" and for extremist Islamic political groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The second was the alliances the Obama administration built with unreliable countries such as Qatar, which supports radical political groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. In addition, Obama made the mistake of continuing to try to appease Iran's theocratic regime.
The Arab Spring's uncalculated, hasty attempt to establish so-called democracy only generated more turmoil and chaos in the region. Certain radical political groups simply exploited the elections to serve their own political and sectarian agendas; that swoop for power only resulted in more authoritarian and dictatorial regimes, as have played out, for instance, in Egypt, where we have witnessed the murder of civilians and police officers by the Muslim Brotherhood. In other countries, the situation is even worse; attempts to install democracy have totally destroyed the state and facilitated the spread of terrorist militias, as in Libya.
It is ironic that Western countries and their advocates stress the need to apply democratic practices in Arab countries, but evidently do not recall that development and secularism preceded democracy in Western Europe. The United Kingdom, which has the oldest democratic system, did not become fully democratic until 1930. France became fully democratic only in 1945, 150 years after the French Revolution.
The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, at the Arab Summit in Jordan on March 28, 2017 delivered a speech in which he indicated his continuous support for the Muslim Brotherhood:
"If we are serious about focusing our efforts on armed terrorist organizations, is it fair to consider any political party we disagree with as terrorist? Is our goal to increase the number of terrorists?"
Many Arab leaders were infuriated by his speech; at the forefront was President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, who left the Arab Summit Hall during the speech to meet King Salman of Saudi Arabia.
Most Arab leaders and analysts, in fact, are enraged by Qatar's continuous support for Islamist political groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, because these groups are a threat to their national security.
President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt speaks at the Arab Summit, on March 29. The previous day, Sisi walked out of a speech by the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani. Sisi was infuriated by Al-Thani's declaration of support for the Muslim Brotherhood. (Image source: Ruptly video screenshot)
Another consequence of Obama's foreign policy -- in particular attempts to get close to Iran's hostile regime -- has been a fraying of relationships with old Arab allies of the United States. Some of Obama's advisors thought that replacing Saudi Arabia with Iran was somehow "better" for the United States, if Iran "is beginning to evolve into a very civilized and historically important country" -- an analysis that can be described as completely short-sighted.
The Saudi regime, with all its flaws, is a monarchy run by princes; the Iranian regime is a theocracy run by clerics. The Saudi regime is not a theocratic regime but a hybrid structure, which is neither wholly secular nor wholly religious. As such, the religious class functions under the authority of the ruling class. Princes are driven by self-interest; clerics are driven by ideology. In terms of extremism, the Iranian regime is pushing for hegemony, whilst Saudi Arabia has been taking only a defensive, rather than an expansionist, position.
The motivation of Saudi Arabia in exporting mosques world-wide and installing radical Saudi imams is defensive, not expansionist as in Iran. Saudi Arabia's impetus is to confront Iran's hegemony and the spread of its hostile ideology. It is this strategy, which Saudi Arabia has practiced since 1979 to balance Iran's power and to combat its rebellious ideology, that must change.
That Iran's Khomeini regime sought to embarrass Saudi Arabia -- a country that is home to Islam's two holiest mosques, in Mecca and Medina -- by portraying it as not sufficiently Islamic, meant that the foundational Islamic Wahhabism of the Saudi Kingdom was aggressively reinforced. This emphasis resulted in even more constraints being put in place in Iran: especially on entertainment. Since the Khomeini revolution in 1979, all plays, fashion shows, international events, and cinemas have been banned. As for women, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice has increasingly harassed them. As for minorities, especially Shia challenging the Iranian Shia regime and its support for Shia militias -- particularly the dominant Revolutionary Guards -- books were published attacking the Shia:
More books appeared, attacking the Shias and especially Khomeini's views. These books – like the arguments of Khomeini's followers – rejected modern thinking as an "intellectual invasion." Saudi Arabia, considered the guardian of Sunni Islam, spent billions of dollars on challenging the Khomeini-backed Shiites.
This religious one-upmanship -- a competition over which body can be the "most religious" -- must stop. Saudi Arabia would do well to understand that in order to confront the hegemony of the Iranian theocratic regime, the answer is not to radicalize Saudi society but to return to the way it was before 1979.
The best way to defeat the rebel hostile regime in Iran might be through creating an inclusive and tolerant society in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia needs to change its approach towards Iran because the current strategy has not worked. The current strategy has done nothing except to strengthen the Iranian regime's dominance; distort, globally, the image of Saudi Arabia and accelerate terrorism.
The lesson the Trump administration might learn from the disastrous mistakes of its predecessor is that the main source of terrorism in the region are political Islam and all its related religious groups. All these radical groups including ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Jabhat Al-Nusra and Hamas have been spawned by a political Islam driven by the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. Extremist jihadists such as Osama bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam and Ayman al-Zawahiri were all taught by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Political Islam practiced by the Iranian theocratic regime has been comfortably generating Shia radical militias, including the terrorist group, Hezbollah. The fight, therefore, should not be against Islam, but against political Islam. Islam needs to be practiced the way other religions are, as a private personal faith that should be kept separate from public life and politics, and whose expression should be confined to worship only. Mosques, whether in the Arab and Muslim world or in the West, should be places of worship only and must not transformed to centers for polarizing society or for recruitment by political religious groups. Unfortunately, Western countries have turned a blind eye to the political activities inside these mosques.
The danger of these religious political groups is that they do not believe in democracy or human rights; they just use elections to grasp power in order to impose a system of "Islamic Caliphate" as their only form of government. Most of these groups use religion as an ideology to oppose governments other than their own, and when they are criticized or attacked, they play the role of the oppressed.
The Trump administration needs to take advantage of the fact that the majority of people in the Middle East and North Africa have lost faith in religious political groups, especially since the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia.
Before the Arab Spring, support for these groups was huge; now it stands at less than 10% of the population. This study was conducted in the Arab world, not including Turkey. The Muslims who support Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are the Muslim Brotherhood.
Most recent polls indicate that the majority of people in Arab and Muslim countries prefer religion to be kept separate from politics.
The country that is working the most systematically to fight these religious political groups in the region is the United Arab Emirates (UAE). There are several institutes and think tanks researching how to combat these groups. Dr. Jamal Sanad Al-Suwaidi, Director General of the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR), has given a robust analysis of these groups and how to combat them in his book, The Mirage. In it, he cites a study on public opinion on political religious groups: A survey of the UAE population, on how these groups are able to influence the public by taking advantage of certain flaws in the system: 53.9% because of corruption; 47.9% because of poverty and 29.1% because of an absence of civil society groups that confront these opportunists.
The Middle East-North Africa region will undoubtedly have to go through several stages before it can successfully establish democracy. An evolutionary developmental approach will definitely be better than the failed revolutionary democratic one pursued by the Obama administration.
Secularization is also crucial in the fight against terrorism. Trying to build a democracy before going through the stages of secularism and political reformation -- which includes rectifying existing flaws, such as corruption; modernization which means the liberation of the region from extremist totalitarian religious dogma and all other forms of backwardness in order to kick-start a renaissance; and scientific development -- will not only be inadequate but will actually generate more terrorism by helping radicals to keep gaining power. It would be like a farmer who wants to plant roses in arid desert soil full of thorns.
Najat AlSaied is a Saudi American academic and the author of "Screens of Influence: Arab Satellite Television & Social Development". She is an Assistant Professor at Zayed University in the College of Communication and Media Sciences in Dubai-UAE. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org